Israeli Perception of the Iranian Threat
Dr. Ehud Eran
Assistant Professor of International Relations University of Haifa
17 July, 2018
My name is Ehud Eiran. I’m an Assistant Professor at the University of Haifa at the Department of International Relations. I want to thank Erpic for this opportunity to talk today about Israel’s perception of the Iranian threat and how it has changed over time. In part, because it may form some of the significant security-related events that may unfold in Syria, specifically the potential for a direct Israeli confrontation on Syrian soil as the Syrian civil war is coming to an end.
So I want to make three big points this afternoon. One is that Israel traditionally perceived Iranian threat as stemming from Iran’s nuclear project, but we have seen a shift in the last few months to the focus on Iran’s conventional or strategic threat, specifically the position it’s gaining in Syria – that’s my first point. The second point is the triangle between Israel, Iran and Russia. The point there is that Israel is trying to work with the Russians to contain, or control, or constrain the Iranian role in Syria. And finally, to point at the recent developments from the last six weeks in which Israel is essentially hinting at its interest in regime change in Iran, which is also a change in Israeli policy. So, from nuclear to conventional, from a two-player game to, perhaps, a three-player game with Russia, and finally, sort of a new Israeli approach towards a regime change which also comes to new tools, mostly – surprisingly – through YouTube videos.
So let me start with the notion of a threat. Israel has been concerned for a long time, at least two decades, with the military aspect of the Iranian nuclear program. Israel’s insistence, which is supported by a lot of facts, that Iran had a program to develop its nuclear program into a militarized nuclear capability.
If we look at the notion of threat, if we unpack it, it actually has, in my view, four separate sets of threats. That’s important to understand, because any future arrangement or an effort to deal with these threats may entail a separate solution for each type of threat. The first threat is existential. So in the 2012 poll, 77% of Israelis said that if Iran has the bomb they would perceive it as an existential threat to Israel. So this is the most primordial, atavistic fear that once your foes have the capability to destroy you, they will do so. Israelis who hold to this position point to Iran’s ideological commitment grounded in its interpretation of Islam, which calls for the destruction of the state of Israel. The previous president, especially, Ahmadinejad, was known for some statements that came to this effect. And of course, it’s informed by experiences that the Jewish people went through long time ago and far away from here, namely the Holocaust, in which a third of the Jewish people were destroyed, were annihilated by the Germans from the early 1940s until 1945. So a lot of rhetoric that comes out from Israel, especially from Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, alludes to the Holocaust: “They have tried to destroy us and they will try to do so again”. In a famous speech in 2008 Prime Minister Netanyahu said: the year (he referred to that time frame) is 1938 – the eve of the Holocaust – and Iran is Germany. So, part of the interpretation of the existential threat in fact stems from Israeli and Jewish historical experiences. So that’s one set of threats.
The second one is highlighted not so much by politicians, but mostly by professionals, by the security establishment. This is focused on the here and now, very realist, materialist, if you will – that is, what I would call, a strategic threat, the notion that once Iran has the bomb, Israel’s dominance as a nuclear hegemon (although never publically stated but largely believed to be the state) will shaken up. And the element of the strategic threat is that Iran will be emboldened to be much more assertive once it has the bomb (although we see it’s quite assertive even without the bomb), that there will be, what the experts call, a cascade effect. In other words, once Iran has the bomb, other regional actors, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, maybe Turkey, will strive for their own bomb, making Israel’s strategic environment much less calm, much more prone to instability. Another strategic element that’s mentioned is that Iran’s allies – Syria, Hezbollah – will feel more emboldened and will take more risks in confronting Israel once they know they are supported by a nuclear power.
The third set of concerns, not as dominant on the discourse but I think largely there, is what I would call a social-economic threat. The idea is: Israel has boomed economically in the last fifteen years, largely due to a big stream of foreign direct investments. Israelis are proud to say that Warren Buffet’s single biggest investment outside of Israel is in the Israeli company – the Iscar Technologies. The high-tech sector that is driving the Israeli economy is largely funded by investments from abroad – we know Google bought Waze, for example, and other deals along those lines. The argument goes: if Iran has a nuclear bomb and threatens to destroy Israel in a matter of a few minutes, foreign investors will be cautious to invest.
And finally – and I would not disregard it as an ideological identity-based threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon – here the story is: Israel promised to be a safe haven for Jews. It was a solution, if you will, to security threats Jews have been facing in Eastern Europe since the late 19th century culminating in the Holocaust, and so the promise was here of a safe Jewish fortress, where the Jewish lives will be protected. But what happened, what does it mean ideologically, if this fortress can be destroyed in a ten-minute notice and become a nuclear desert. That’s the first point.
What has happened the last year, the Syrian civil war is coming towards the end. We had the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) – the agreement that Iran agreed to halt its nuclear program in 2015. And so the notion of threat shifted a bit from existential – nuclear and so on – to the more conventional one, specifically Iran’s allies: Bashar al-Assad, with massive Iranian, Russian, Hezbollah and so on support seems to be winning the civil war. Syria is entering the phase where the arrangements for the structure of the future Syrian state and the way power will be distributed there are being organized now. As may be expected the winners with the invested effort from outside, the Iranians, want to hold positions close to Israel, potentially deployed forces, built bases, created a real conventional deterrent close to the border by deploying missiles. Israel was very vocal in rejecting that and trying to push an arrangement in which the Iranians will be deployed kilometers away – 40-50 kilometers. The rumors say that Israel and Russia agreed for such a deal, in which the Russians will guarantee that the Iranians will be deployed further away in return for Israel’s acquiescence for Assad forces deployed closer to the border. It’s not clear, partly because of the nature the actors, specifically the Russians, if this deal will come through. But Israel already demonstrated its willingness to use force to enforce this sort of red lines by attacking Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria on quite a large scale. So, we’ve moved from a nuclear to a conventional threat. The Americans pulling out from JCPOA recently means that the nuclear file may reopen. It’s not clear if Iran will keep its part of the deal once the Americans are out. If there is a better deal, as Trump is hoping of course, I think the Israeli, at least the security establishment, will of course support it. I’m not sure what will be the Prime Minister’s position. If there is no deal and the Iranians go back to an active program, we may see escalation over this because this has been defined essentially as a red line for Israel.
And finally, my last point. I want to draw the listeners’ attention to a new tack in Israeli behavior. Up until now, Prime Minister and other Israeli elites advocated on the international arena, employed force, employed covert action to try to stop the Iranian advances in the region. Since late May Prime Minister Netanyahu took a new direction by releasing three clips directed at the Iranian people, essentially highlighting that Israel’s issue is with the Iranian regime rather than the Iranian people. It’s a much more nuanced approach, conveyed through a new medium. Israel traditionally, specifically Netanyahu, was a great believer in dramatic speeches on institutionalized world forums like the Security Council of the United Nations, and in government-to-government dialogue. Netanyahu now, perhaps in the populist spirit of Trump, or maybe acquiescing to the new realities of the new media, is producing these short clips in English to the Iranian public, saying how wonderful the public is, how horrible the regime is, and in fact reminding the Iranians why the regime is bad for them, focusing on issues that seem to be of interest to the public, for example the water prices in Iran. So Netanyahu starts a clip by drinking some water and telling the Iranians that Israel has a technology that can help them, but it is their evil leaders who are preventing it. And in fact, consequently, Israel launched an internet site in Farsi, which has some information and knowledge of how to deal with water shortages. This also plays into this Israeli recent image of the start-up nation advanced technologically, and so on.
It seems that this new tack is coordinated with the Americans and there are some hints that Israel and the US are quietly creating a working group to try and think more concretely about changes in Iran. This is not fully public, but it was mentioned in the press that Israeli officials that spoke to the press were careful and calibrated in the expectations saying, “We know we cannot change the regime, but this creates some leverage”.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting, because Israel has been traditionally very cautious to get involved in internal affairs of other countries. The few times Israel did intervene are perceived here as a failure and a cause of a greater problem. Iran, of course, is a specific case, in which the West is very careful about, partly because of the 1953 Mossadegh coup, in which the CIA and the British were able to reinstate the Shah through their involvement, but this led to this resentment and suspicion toward the West for a long time.
Some of these issues are discussed in other places and the listeners are welcome to read them. I had a piece in The Washington Quarterly 4-5 years ago with my colleague Martin Malin analyzing the notions of threat. And recently, I’ve been contributing to a blog at the Atlantic Council site that deals with Iran – the IranSource. You can read mine and other people’s thoughts about the current situation in Iran.
So, thank you for this opportunity. I want to thank Erpic again, and I look forward to future engagements.